Before they were married, they met in a photograph. They stood on opposite ends of it, and beached between them was a dead sea lion, breaded in sand. The way she tells it, they were the only two1 people at the sea that day, the shoreline like a sleeve, something to slip out of, and when the sea lion corpse shouldered itself onto land, he was the one who called out to her and suggested they take a commemorative2 photograph with it. She’s the only one looking away from the camera, her eyes so dark they look cored out of the sockets. The skin of the sea lion, enameled with blood, is tugged thin around its face. The lantern of its ribcage lifts off the page.
She says she loved him for smiling3 in the photo, as if they were posing with a mascot or a president, and she wonders what happened to the sea lion after they left it, if someone came to incinerate it, if they slit it open and filled it with cinderblocks and sank it, if something nocturnal ate it. In the photo, she stands farthest from it and says, isn’t it supposed to have tusks, and he says only the males, because they fight to the death4 for mates, and this one must be a female, look how full it is, pregnant. Maybe the babies survived, he said. He parsed the sand for anything sharp, a broken beer bottle, green5 as the veins in his neck. She could tell from the way he lifted it to the light that he was literate in loneliness. That his kidneys were stone-studded. When he crouched, she looked at the back of his neck, a name tattooed there that she couldn’t read: it cursived around his collarbone like a necklace.
With the broken bottle, he steered open the sea lion’s belly, navigating its skin with the intimacy of a bird dragging its feet through the sea. It was bloodless surgery, the fat cutting like a cake, the blue belly-sack writhing alive. She could see the belly contracting, beating like a fist. He slipped his hands through the slit, gloving his hands in brine, bridling what was inside. The photograph, she says, should have captured this instead: the sea edged like a broken bottle, stabbing the shore, and his hands cemented in darkness. Inside that belly, she says, was me. He lifted me out, dangling me by the hair. He beat my chest, blued me into breathing. I looked down at the hole6 that once harbored my body. I promised to grow up and sew it shut, to guard its dark. And then I would boot the carcass out to sea, island me.
1. I liked visiting her when my brother wasn’t there and we could speak alone. When I could pretend it was me she’d been waiting for, been calling to come home, hurry. I liked the way her shadow shrouded mine on the floor of her kitchen. She said, I’ve always liked water even though I can’t swim. I thought it was a strange thing to say—how could someone like or dislike water? Do you like/dislike air, or like/dislike having a mouth? Can we love what we’re made of? And she told me she didn’t really like air because it was a vehicle for wildfires and farts. She also didn’t like having a mouth: I did not choose to renew my thirst, she said. We laughed. After that, she always talked to me with her lips matted together, gargling her words, until my brother overheard her on the phone with me and said stop it, you sound like an infant. But I liked how she sounded: like paragraphs of falling rain, water writing us down.↩
2. After she married my brother, I went to the salon where she worked and asked for a haircut. As soon as I sat down, she recognized me from the number of cowlicks on my scalp. The same as my brother. She said the number cowlicks on my head corresponded to how many lives I’ve lived. This is your fourth, she said. You’ve had twice as many lives as me. I told her I’d heard differently: that the number of cowlicks corresponded to how many debts you’d accrued in a previous life. How many people you owed. You’re one of my four, I wanted to say to her, but her scissors trimmed my sentences to silences. She looked at my scalp the whole time, and when it was over, I tipped her two times more than I could afford, an advance apology. I paid for the nick she left in my neck. When her fingers had touched my chin by accident, I imagined them inside my mouth.↩
3. One time, before our youngest sister was born, I told my brother I was afraid that our mother wouldn’t love us anymore, that divvying a mother between three mouths was too many. My brother, who wore the same Air Force pajamas every day even after he outgrew them—we had to cut slits in the collar so that it could dilate around his head—said don’t worry, we’ll band together and bully our little sister into leaving. We invented all the ways we could get her evicted, like convincing her to shit in our hands so we could smear it in the kitchen, or showing her how to hold scissors and cut our mother’s laundry line, all our clothes curdled like milk.↩
4. She called me at night once and asked me what kind of girlfriends my brother had before her, if there was a reason why he wore a peach pit around his neck engraved with a woman’s face. I told her not to worry, that was our mother’s face preserved in that pit, that he learned how to carve faces from our grandmother in Mianyang, who peddled melon sculptures. He was sent to our grandmother’s house for four years, I explained, when we were kids and my mother couldn’t afford all of us. Those days, whenever he called, he asked if he’d been sent away because he ate the most out of all of us. He said, I promise I don’t eat as much anymore. Can I come home? Waipo bought me a book on how to shrink your stomach, such as eating one stone fruit a day and only drinking one tadpole of water at a time so the belly stays the size of a balled sock. It’s like how you can fold clothes flat when there’s no body inside them. I leave myself. I eat three melon seeds per sitting. That’s all I need, three melon seeds. He kept repeating that to us, three three three. Even after he came home, he only ate one mouthful of every meal, even when my mother cried or spanked him with a spoon. He held up his fist and said my belly is the size of this.↩
5. I met her coming out of the grocery store with bananas hanging from her hands, a chandelier of bitter. They were all green and glowed. The trick is, she told me, you have to buy everything green and then wait a week. A week later it’s almost rotting, it’s so sweet. I looked at the bananas because she wanted me to. I did not look at her face. I did not guess from the ripeness of it how many days ago my brother made a fist.↩
6. According to my brother, she stole his car and drove all the way east to Reno where her cousins lived. The last time I talked to her was at church, where I hadn’t been in years. I went there because I knew she was a Baptist—my brother told me the story of how she baptized herself by striding into the sea in a string bikini, except she didn’t realize that the tide would wrap around her like a tourniquet and pull her under. By some miracle she was yanked onto a sandbar half a mile from shore, and when she stood up on it, she thought for a moment she was standing in the middle of the ocean, her legs long enough to reach the seafloor. She could walk anywhere, to any country. They should make stilts like that, she said, stilts for people who can’t swim. I went to church even though I knew nothing about god or Jesus, except that one of them had walked on water and that was what she wanted most to do. In the parking lot, she told me to get a trim soon. I said I was worried that if I cut my hair, I would look like my brother. Exposed cowlicks. True, she said, but hair is dead. It doesn’t matter what it resembles. I only care about living things, she said to me. Before she got into her car, which was my brother’s, I tried to tell her a story. I tried to make her stay, even though that made me the same as him. I wanted to kiss the back of her neck. Where her scissors shipped silver across my skin. One time, I told her, when my brother was in Mianyang, he found a dog in an alleyway, a runaway. It must have been a bait dog, because its face was scrolled away and it was scared of people. Except my brother. It followed him around, even to the outhouse. He gave it a glass eye, a green marble he preserves in the back pocket of his jeans and shines, fogging it blind with his breath. When he flew back from Mianyang to be with us, he wanted to take the dog back with him, so he put it in a bamboo cage and carried it. The dog had to go in the cargo hold, and somehow it died during the flight. The air pressure or an aneurysm or something. He buried it in our yard, and we planted a lime tree there. Maybe I can show you sometime, the limes tender as eyes. She smiled then. She said, Don’t tell me. I can live without knowing that. But what about you, she said, how have you lived. God knows, I said. God knows my brother. She laughed at me and reached out, her fingers strumming the cowlick at the base of my skull, reversing its current, and when I close my eyes, feeling only the friction of her fingers, her sweat tiding over my skin, I pretend it was me that day on the beach, it was me, the one she was going to meet.↩
Rumpus original art by Madeline Kreider Carlson.